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409. Job 40:19-24, Finishing the Description of Behemoth

19 “He is the first of the ways of God;
Let his maker bring near his sword.
20 Surely the mountains bring him food,
And all the beasts of the field play there.
21 Under the lotus plants he lies down,
In the covert of the reeds and the marsh.
22 The lotus plants cover him with shade;
The willows of the brook surround him.
23 If a river rages, he is not alarmed;
He is confident, though the Jordan rushes to his mouth.
24 Can anyone capture him when he is on watch,
With barbs can anyone pierce his nose?

 

As mentioned above, the description of Behemoth’s body is followed by one verse (v 19) which functions as an interlude and then five (vv 20-24) that describe its habitat. That interlude verse reads:

 

    “He is the head/first/chief of the ways of God; the one who made him—his sword will approach           him.”

 

The multiple ways to read this verse hint at the evolving reality in the description of Behemoth—that the text will go from relative clarity to unclarity. We are not sure how to read the “first” (reshith) here. It is the first word of the Bible and, in that context, no doubt pointed to the idea of temporal priority, but it can also be used to suggest the idea of “source” (God is described as the “beginning of my strength” in Genesis 49:3) or the “best quality” or “choicest” as in the “first of the fruits” (Exodus 23:19). If I had to hazard a guess on this one, I would say that Behemoth is the “choicest” or “best” of all the creatures God has made—that is, from the perspective of the characteristics it possesses. It is the most awesome creature in strength or in solidity of body.  

 

Reading the first part in terms of Behemoth’s physical strength then yields a possible meaning for the second part. The second phrase may well mean that God (“the one who made him”) is the one who might be able to tame (“approach”) him. There is no “only” in the verse, even though that word is often used in translation. God has to use the “sword” in this taming process. This is an interesting thought, since other things are tamed by God’s word alone (e.g., the sea with “thus far shall you go and no further,” in 38:11). We aren’t sure how God would actually wield the sword to tame Behemoth, if indeed that is how we read “approach” (the common nagas). The picture that arises in mind is like a lion tamer using the chair and whip to bring that recalcitrant king of beasts into submission, but that may be the weakness of our conceptions. We assume that “approach with the sword” means “to tame;” we also assume that the difficult form which I render “his work” actually is “his work.” If it is, then the “work” of the second clause must be identical to the “way” of the first clause. We can see how meaning is gradually slipping through our fingers, even though we say we understand verse 19.

 

We also have a hard time with verse 20.  The scene now shifts to the lifestyle of Behemoth, both in food-gathering and lounging under lotus trees. From a distance it looks as if it is just describing the source of Behemoth’s food (the mountains) and the location where not just the “deer and the antelope play” but where all the wild creatures play, but on closer look the clarity begins to disappear.  

 

The subject of the sentence in verse 20 is the harim, “the mountains,” and they bring/carry/lift up (the common verb nasa) the food for him. Mountains “bringing” food doesn’t necessarily mean that they rise up, uproot themselves, walk over to Behemoth, give him food and then return to their place; it most likely means “to yield” food. Well, if the mountains yield the food, it means that Behemoth has to go and get it. This was before Amazon.com began delivering food, I believe. Such an action is problematic if the animal is like a hippopotamus, whose feet aren’t made for climbing hills much less for free-soloing up sheer peaks.   


Because of the problem of Behemoth going out to get his own food in the mountains, and Behemoth supposedly being a hippopotamus, Clines and others have read the word “mountains” as “rivers.” This change makes no sense in English, but in Hebrew we go from “mountain” (h-r) to “river” (n-h-r). That this isn’t such a wild idea is suggested by the presence of the word “food” here (bul), which in its present form only appears one other time in the Bible (Isaiah 44:19) but means something completely different in that context, but if we just add the little sound ye before it (yebul), we have the word for “food” or “produce” (it appears 13x). Both of these suggestions take us into the murky world of textual emendations. I will stick with the idea here of mountains yielding food, though I am sympathetic to bul’s originally being yebul.

 

We are then surprised by the end of verse 20, for it seems to suggest that the mountains are the playground for “all the beasts.” We see, in the mind’s eye, beasts gently frolicking in an Edward Hicksian-type scene of gentle harmony. The verb for “playing” is the now-familiar sachaq (36x, “to laugh/mock”) which is a particular favorite of God in Job 38-41 (6x). Everyone seems to be laughing in God’s speeches—except God. The wild ass (39:7), the ostrich (39:19) the war horse (39:22), all the beasts (here), Job (41:5) and Leviathan (41:29) all “laugh” or “mock” or “play.” The word lends not simply a playful but even a bit of a ludicrous air to the passage.

 

Well, the rest of the chapter (vv 21-24) shifts from the mountains back to flat land. After all that exertion going up to the mountain and getting food, then watching or joining in with the wild beasts as they play, Behemoth is ready to settle in and watch the game. So, verse 21 has it:

 

    “He settles down/lies under the lotus-tree, in the hidden place of reeds and swamps."

 

Behemoth likes swamps. That is another reason why some scholars see the word "mountain" as
“river” in verse 20. He no doubt likes the water. But verse 21 has a picturesque flavor to it. We see him settling in (the common shakab) under the tseelim, a word that appears nowhere else other than here and the next verse. It is impressive to see some earlier scholars try to determine if this is the Zizyphus or Nymphea lotus; the latter is more of an aquatic plant, the former a dry-land plant. We wish someone would have left a sketch behind entitled “Behemoth’s Dwelling Place”—and our quest would be over. But all we have is him settling in under the tree or bush in the neighborhood of “reeds” (the common qaneh) and “swamps” (bitstsah, 3x, also 8:11).  The word bitstsah is no doubt related to bots, a hapax, which is usually rendered “mire” (Jeremiah 38:11), the thing into which Jeremiah sunk.  

 

Verse 22 begins by repeating the thought that began verse 21, though it changes the verb. Rather than settling in (shakab) under the lotus tree/bush (tseelim), now we have the lotus tree (tseelim) covering (sakak) him with its shadow (tsel). The verb sakak (24x/2x Job) receives its most memorable usage in Exodus 33:22 where God says He will pass by Moses and cover him (sakak) him with the divine hand.  Now, however, we see Behemoth lounging in peace in the swampy fens under the lotus tree/bush.  One more detail is added. He is also surrounded (the common sabab) by willows (arab). The scene has such an attractive verisimilitude to it that we can almost imagine a cartoon-maker coming up with a “Behemoth series” of cartoons to portray the life of this strong but seemingly indolent creature. The most memorable use of the word areb in the Bible is no doubt Psalm 137:2, where the weeping exiles hung up their lyres on willow trees.  We note that our passage in Job 40 is suffused by gentle “s”-sounds..Shush, don’t wake Behemoth. . .He sleepeth under the lotus.  

 

Verse 23 presents us with translation difficulties, even as the scene also seems to present potential danger to Behemoth as he lounges under the lotus. The difficulty is occasioned by how to render the first verb, the relatively common ashaq (35x). It normally is rendered in a variety of ways: “extort/deceive/oppress/wrong/crush.”  Here we have the subject of the verb as a river (nachal).  If we render ashaq as “oppress through its raging or rising,” admittedly taking a little liberty with the verb, we have, literally:

 

    “Behold if a river oppresses through its raging, he doesn’t panic; he trusts (even) when the

     Jordan bursts forth on his mouth.”

 

Perhaps the author only had one verb for “spread out” or “burst forth” at the ready (the rare giach (6x) in the second clause; he had used it previously in 38:8); thus we have the interesting picture of a river’s rise being characterized as “oppressing” something.  But, Behemoth is a big boy. He doesn’t panic (chaphaz, 9x). Instead, using a verb with deep theological resonance, he “trusts” (batach, 120x). Yet, instead of trusting God, which is how the verb normally functions, he trusts even if the Jordan bursts onto his mouth. The last phrase is also suggestive, even as we struggle to imagine the torturous twisting of the calm Jordan being turned into a raging river that bursts forth. Rather than waters rising to the neck, a thought expressed by the Psalmist (69:1), here we have waters bursting or gushing forth to his mouth. We don’t know the reason for Behemoth’s chill attitude (to use millennial-speak), but he is one confident dude. Strong, lying under the lotus, surrounded by willows. All we need are some loofah-waving dancing girls and we have a paradisiacal scene.

 

But now, in verse 24, the tone changes.  We have the first of many questions, questions that begin with Behemoth and then go on to Leviathan (beginning in verse 25—the English 41:1). In contrast to the questions in Job 38-39, all of which were directed to Job and emphasized Job’s smallness and impotence, this one seems directed to everyone or no one.

 

    “Can (anyone) take him by his eyes? With a snare shall someone pierce his nose?"

 

The question is interesting because it directs us now not so much to Job’s or anyone’s knowledge of the world or one’s power in general to effect great changes in the world, but to the instruments, primarily of the fisherman’s or hunter’s trade, by which they catch their targets. All humans are impotent in trying to capture one as powerful as Behemoth. Clines doesn’t like the reference to “eyes” here and changes it to be consistent with the two following verses—where instruments of capture are described.  So, he has “Can it be captured with a fork?” But the two parts of the body are clearly mentioned here—eyes and nose—and I see no reason to abandon the first, even though we can profitably see this verse also as a transition to two other questions focusing on instruments of capture.  

 

Ten verses on Behemoth is enough. But this little story about Behemoth also shows us something else about God. If God can give us ten eloquent verses on Behemoth and then about thirty-four, in the next chapter, on Leviathan, how many more verses are stored up in the divine mind about other creatures, either mythological or actual? We have no description of how Job is affected by all this, but I think if I were Job I would be both impressed and would be getting a bit tired.